Orphaned young, Oliver Sterling, eleventh duke of Kendal, lives in seclusion in his massive home, Horncliffe Manor. Convinced since childhood that he is monstrous, his only company is his guardian, Mr. Winters—a man who perpetuates Oliver’s self-loathing. Still, Oliver is only human. One day, he sees a beautiful young woman in a painting titled “St. Ives Girl.” Captivated, he asks Mr. Winters to find her, marry her by proxy, and bring her back as his bride . . .
Rebecca Kane is shocked that her squire father has agreed to marry her off to a duke in exchange for payment of his gambling debts. But with no option, she submits. Rebecca fears this husband she has never seen in the light of day—yet in the marriage bed, her husband is kind and gentle. And though they remain in darkness, she detects nothing odd about him. She wonders what he is hiding and soon finds there are more mysteries to uncover—about the unsettling noises coming from deep within the manor, about Mr. Winters, and about love—of oneself and one’s beloved . . .
Praise for the novels of Jane Goodger
“An unforgettable read.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on The Earl Most Likely
“Fun, delightfully romantic—and sexy.”
—Sally MacKenzie on The Spinster Bride
“A touching, compassionate, passion-filled romance.”
—RT Book Reviews on A Christmas Waltz
“Goodger writes romances that touch readers’ hearts and bring a smile to their day.”
—RT Book Reviews
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Rebecca couldn't remember the last time her father had summoned her to his study. Firstly, the man was rarely in his study, leaving the running of the household to her and her mother. Secondly, he was not often in St. Ives, preferring to spend his time in London, which, he said, held far more entertainments.
Everyone in the Caine household knew that "entertainments" was simply another word for gambling.
Her father had returned home just last night to much fanfare. Despite the fact his habits had the family teetering on the brink of ruin much of the time, each of her three sisters adored their father. Even Rebecca's weary mother seemed happier when her husband was home. After all, Thomas Caine was not a man who chased skirts, he was simply a man who loved to wager. Like her sisters, Rebecca adored her father, choosing to ignore the tightening in her stomach whenever he'd announce it was time to return to the city. Yet despite his seeming happiness at seeing his four daughters, Rebecca thought she detected something slightly off in his manner when he'd returned this time. He'd acted too happy, as if he were hiding something, and that never boded well for the Caines and their unstable bank account.
Still, the Caines had been in this situation before and always managed to come out of it. In the past year, Rebecca had begun selling bits of her crocheted items in a local shop and even (and rather scandalously, according to her friend Eliza), posed for artists who often came to St. Ives to paint. The money she earned was enough to pay for the household daily expenses, at least for a time. Rebecca wasn't unduly worried about her father's summons until she stepped into his study and realized he'd been joined by a stranger. Rebecca dipped a quick curtsy, noting the man's impeccable dress, and shot a questioning look at her father. The stranger's dark gray suit was tailored to perfection, and though he was not a tall man, he seemed to exude power, the sort that was not always welcome in a household that often lived on the brink of ruin.
"Mr. Winters, this is my daughter, Rebecca," her father said, his voice sounding oddly strained.
Looking quickly from the stranger to her father, Rebecca felt her stomach drop even further when her father would not meet her eyes. This study had always been a haven, a place where she would spend hours when she was a girl, hovering about her father, playing with the dolls he would bring from London. In the afternoons, the sun would shine through the tall windows and dust would sparkle in the air, making it easy to imagine fairies lived hidden in the room. Now, though, on this gray, misty day, the room seemed muted, almost ominous, and Rebecca suppressed a shiver.
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Caine," Mr. Winter said with fluid grace. The man stared at her, his eyes sweeping her form in a manner that was just shy of insulting. His eyes, a dark brown, held little emotion, however, and little interest despite that assessing look. He was pale, his brown hair parted on the side and ruthlessly combed over and across his forehead. His was the sort of face that looked slightly pudgy even though he was quite thin, a deceivingly calm and friendly countenance that held menace behind his bland smile. Why Rebecca thought so, she could not have said.
"Papa?" He sat behind his desk, one that Rebecca noted was littered with papers, seemingly stacked haphazardly. Rebecca always kept the desk meticulously organized, and she swallowed down a small bit of irritation that her father had created such chaos in the short few hours of his being home.
"Oh, dear, I'm not certain I know how to say this." He took a deep and shaking breath. "I owe Mr. Winters a great deal of money, Rebecca. More than I could ever repay in this lifetime. That is, not without selling everything we own, the house and lands included. Your mother and sisters ..." His voice trailed off and Rebecca could feel the other man's eyes on her, though she refused to look in his direction.
"I have come to your father with a proposal," Mr. Winters said smoothly.
Rebecca tensed. "No." It was an instinctive response.
Mr. Winters let out a low chuckle. "No? Is the answer no, Mr. Caine?" His tone was so mocking, Rebecca felt her anger grow.
"Rebecca, as the eldest child, you have a certain responsibility to your sisters —"
"What of your responsibility to all of us?" she cried, not caring that he flinched.
"Now, now," Mr. Winters said, stepping forward. "Let us not fall into hysterics. My proposal is this. Marry the Duke of Kendal and the debt will be forgiven."
If Mr. Winters had proposed that she marry the man on the moon, she would have not been as surprised, and she bit back a bit of laughter. "The Duke of ..."
"... Kendal," Winters supplied. "Of Horncliffe. It's a bit north of here."
"It's very nearly in Scotland," Rebecca returned, and she could tell he was surprised that she knew even that much. "I've not heard of this duke." Her friends and she often pored over the London gossip column The Tattler and she could not recall ever seeing a mention of the Duke of Kendal. And how ridiculous for a squire's daughter to marry a duke. Rebecca felt as if she were experiencing a strange yet horrifyingly realistic dream.
"The Kendal title is one of the oldest and most respected in all of England," Winters said, his tone holding just a hint of derision. For the first time, Rebecca recognized distaste on the man's face; he did not approve of this transaction any more than she did.
"How did His Grace choose me? I'm no one. My father is but a squire and I'm quite certain I have not had the occasion to meet him or even be in the same room." She pressed her fingers against her temples in an effort to gain control of her emotions. "I do not understand any of this."
"His Grace saw a painting of you," Winters said.
Rebecca's cheeks immediately heated, even though she knew all of the portraits done of her were tasteful; her father had no idea she'd sat for more than one visiting artist.
"Painting? What's this?"
"To earn pin money, Papa. Mama approved."
"His Grace was quite taken with you," Winters said. His words were innocuous enough, but something in his tone told Rebecca he found the idea of her posing for an artist objectionable.
"My answer is still no," she said, but her voice trembled. "How can I possibly accept a marriage proposal from a man I have never met, who has never met me. And perhaps it has escaped your notice, but I am far from the rank that any duke would consider even as a paid companion."
"It has not escaped me in the least," Winters said, his tone and expression frigid.
"Rebecca," her father said sadly. "You must. And you will be a duchess. Imagine what that will do for our family, for your sisters. If you do not ..."
"If I do not, everything will be gone," she said, finishing her father's sentence when it became obvious he could not. "We shall be impoverished. You will end up in debtors' prison."
The tears welling up in her father's eyes did what his words could not. How could a girl who adored her father ignore the real pain she saw? But how could she agree to marry a man she had never met, knew nothing about? He could be old or cruel or mad or any number of horrid things. What defect must he have if this was the only way he could obtain a bride? He was a duke, after all. Even an old and decrepit duke could manage to marry aristocracy. Any girl in the kingdom would jump at the chance to be a duchess. Except her.
She turned to Mr. Winters. "Is he mad?"
"He is twenty and eight."
"He is all that is kind," Winters said, his tone mocking.
Rebecca furrowed her brow, confused by his answers until it occurred to her that the duke might be an invalid or deformed in some way. It didn't help that she'd just finished reading about poor Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. "Is he deformed?"
"No," Winters said with only the slightest hesitation, but his eyes remained direct and Rebecca could detect no prevarication.
"I don't understand why the duke is not here himself. Does he not think meeting his bride is important?"
Winters pressed his thin lips together, a hint of annoyance in his dark eyes. "It matters not why he cannot attend the ceremony, only that he wishes for it to occur. It is my duty to make certain his wishes are fulfilled."
"He will not attend his own wedding ceremony?" Rebecca asked, her trepidation only growing.
"You will marry by proxy." He gave a mocking bow. "I am His Grace's proxy."
Suppressing a shiver, she looked to her father and said, "If I do this thing, you must promise never to gamble again, Papa. Ever. Promise me."
"I promise," he said with no hesitation.
Rebecca shook her head. "I don't believe you. What next, Papa? Shall Carol be married off to someone else to settle your debts? You must promise me. Think what you have wrought. Think what you have done to me."
Her father buried his head in his hands and wept, saying over and over, "I promise," and Rebecca swallowed down the tears that threatened. It was Mr. Winters who stopped her tears. His cold, emotionless gaze held only one thing: satisfaction.
"It's utterly the most romantic thing I have ever heard!"
Rebecca looked at her friend Eliza with complete disbelief. "Romantic? I think it's bloody odd," she said, swearing only because she knew it annoyed her friend. She and Eliza were the only two of their small group of friends to remain unmarried. Her "wedding" was the next day and her mind was still whirling with what had happened just that morning. The two women were lying crosswise on Eliza's massive four-poster bed, nearly drowning in the thick comforter that covered it. Eliza blew a dark brown curl from her head and rested her chin on one hand, her blue eyes dancing with excitement. Rebecca supposed from Eliza's perspective, it was all exciting. Imagine a duke seeing her portrait and becoming so entranced, he would demand her hand in marriage. It was the stuff of fairy tales, not real life. And though Rebecca adored fairy tales in theory, being part of one was not nearly as enjoyable as reading one.
"Hmm. A bit odd, yes. And I did tell you posing for those artists was unseemly. But a duke, Rebecca. Honestly, I'm so jealous I could scream. To think all my untitled friends have married titles, and my one high born friend married a commoner. What does that leave for me? A farmer? A fisherman?"
Rebecca giggled. "A prince of course. He rules a tiny county on the continent and will be shipwrecked in St. Ives and you, of course, will sound the alarm and save him and his men and he will fall madly in love with you. And then you shall be a princess."
"Do you truly think that could happen?" Eliza asked dreamily.
Rebecca gave her friend a level look. "No. And neither do you." When Eliza opened her mouth to protest, Rebecca firmly repeated, "Neither do you."
Of the four of them, only Eliza had truly wanted to marry a title; the rest were content with an ordinary man. Rebecca had always thought Eliza perfectly adorable, with her bright blue eyes, curling brown hair, and smattering of freckles across her nose that no amount of cream could fade. It was a mystery to her why she had not yet attracted a husband, especially given her father was the son of a viscount. Yet none of her friends had ever dreamed of marrying quite so high above their station, particularly Rebecca. Of all her friends, her family was one of the lowest on the social ladder, which did make this match a bit miraculous.
"What if something is terribly wrong with him? Why have we heard nothing of him? And why does he need to resort to marrying a commoner whom he spied in a painting? That's not in the least romantic."
"At least we know he's not blind," Eliza said, then covered her head when Rebecca threatened to beat her with a pillow. "Did his man of business say anything about him?"
"He only answered direct questions." Rebecca picked at a bit of loose thread on the comforter until Eliza slapped her hand away. "Sorry." She laid her forehead on her arms and stared at the soft muslin, wishing she could stay in this soft, muted world. "It's only that it's a bit frightening, isn't it," she said, her voice slightly muffled.
She felt Eliza gently shake her shoulder. "Are you truly frightened? I've never known you to be afraid of anything."
Rebecca lifted her head and smiled wistfully. "It's so far away," she said, and her throat closed up as tears threatened. "I always pictured myself marrying someone local, living here, and visiting my mum every day. I thought my children would grow up in St. Ives and play along the shore. It snows in Horncliffe. Even the name of the place." She pulled a face. "Who would name a place horn cliff? Who?"
Eliza pressed her lips together in an attempt not to smile. "I believe it must be someone's name."
Turning around so that she was looking up at the bed's canopy, Rebecca let out a frustrated groan. "Horn cliff. Sounds like the devil himself lives there."
That was when Eliza let out a gasp.
"Wait here." She ran to her writing desk and pulled open a drawer. "You know how I collect newspaper clippings that inspire my stories."
"I remember saving something about Horncliffe. It was years ago, so I might be wrong," she said, rifling through her papers. "Aha!" She stood, her eyes scanning over the article quickly. "Oh, Rebecca."
Rebecca sat up immediately, for Eliza sounded as if she had just discovered something terrible.
"The Ghost Duke. No one has seen him for years, but the locals blame him for all sorts of things, from sheep dying mysteriously to missing women and children. Oh, this is terrible."
Rebecca laughed. "A duke who murders sheep?"
Eliza joined in her laughter. "I suppose it is silly. Still, if the locals are that superstitious about the duke, it is unfortunate." She looked up from the clipping before going on. "And it says no one has seen him in years and 'those who gaze upon his terrible visage instantly turn to stone.' Why, I wonder? Did not his man say he was not deformed? Perhaps he is ..."
"You are not easing my nerves, Eliza," Rebecca said darkly.
"Sorry," Eliza said, giving her friend a quick hug. "Still, it is odd, is it not? Ghost Duke." She grinned. "Perhaps he is a ghost and that man is his living minion who must do as he says."
"Stop," Rebecca said, breaking into giggles before sobering and nearly giving in to the tears that had threatened since she'd realized she had no choice but to marry a stranger.
"Are you very angry with your father?"
Rebecca sighed. "It is difficult to remain angry with him, for he is genuinely sorry. Mum pretends to be vexed, but I do believe she is secretly thrilled that I am to be a duchess. I'm saving all my anger for the duke."
"I should think your parents would demand to meet him before agreeing to this," her friend said loyally.
"What good would that do? I will not allow my father to go to debtors' prison or for the family to descend into poverty, no matter what he is like."
"A sacrificial lamb," Eliza said, but her tone was one of dreamy romance.
"Will you stop it?" Rebecca said, laughing. "There is positively nothing romantic about any of this."
Eliza laughed with her; then her expression abruptly changed to a frown. "I understand how the duke would fall in love with your picture, but how is it that your father ended up indebted to him so desperately that he was forced to agree to the marriage?"
Raising one eyebrow, Rebecca gave her friend a look of disbelief. "My father was made a target. It would not take much investigation to learn of his penchant for gambling."
"Do you mean to say this man manipulated your father into losing?"
"I can think of no other explanation."
"That's not a very good way to start a marriage," Eliza said, her fantasy of romance crumbling around her.
"No, it is not. But what choice do I have?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Reluctant Duchess"
Copyright © 2019 Jane Goodger.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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